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SUPERMAN VERSUS THE ELITE DVD
(***)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:
Michael Chang
Writers:
Screenplay by: Joe Kelly
Starring the Voices of:
George Newbern, Pauley Perrette, Dee Bradley Baker
Length:   76 minutes
Released:   061212-direct to dvd
Rating:
PG-13 for violence.
“...an unexpectedly dark, at-times poignant dissection of the Superman mythos and the political perils and pitfalls of our modern age." 
Is Superman still relevant? Is truth, justice and the quote-unquote American Way sufficient? Should remorseless villains be granted the same rights, due process and mercy as lesser criminals? Is moral fortitude still something we as a society can afford to cling to? Is it even attainable? Would the world rally behind a moralistic hero or demand a savior willing to get his hands dirty for the good of the planet? Do we really want heroes who are willing to serve as judge, jury and executioner? Do we dream of heroes like Superman anymore? Or has fear and escalating global violence left little room for idealism in our ideology? These were valid questions in early 2001, when fan-favorite comic scribe Joe Kelly took Superman's relevance and seemingly unshakable morals to task in the critically hailed Action Comics #775 (easily one of the best Superman stories ever committed to print), and they remain valid questions in 2012, with Kelly revisiting his now-eleven-year-old work and penning its even more timely animated adaptation, Superman vs. The Elite. Is it one of the best DCU animated movies to date? Not by my estimation. Is it better than Action Comics #775? Not by a long shot. Does that spoil the movie? Not as much as you might think. Unless you count Kelly's original Action Comics issue as one of the books in your comic bible, Superman vs. The Elite will be an unexpectedly dark, at-times poignant dissection of the Superman mythos and the political perils and pitfalls of our modern age.

Even when it isn't asking big questions or unleashing the full force of Superman's frightening fury on a bewildered adversary, Superman vs. The Elite covers a lot of ground in seventy-six minutes. After bringing the Atomic Skull (Dee Bradley Baker) to justice... again... Superman (George Newbern) encounters a new group of heroes who soon begin referring to themselves as "The Elite": foul-mouthed, telekinetic powerhouse Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes), bio-EMP metahuman Coldcast (Catero Colbert), drunken magic-wielder Hat (Andrew Kishino), and symbiotic alien-worm host Menagerie (Melissa Disney). Superman doesn't exactly trust the Elite but takes them on their word, giving them a chance to do some good by his side. But when Manchester and his unruly team begin endangering civilians, torturing enemy soldiers and killing super villains, it becomes clear to Superman that the Elite pose a grave threat to the world. Not that the world is complaining. As journalists, pundits, the vast majority of the public, and even Lois (Pauley Perrette), Superman's wife, begin questioning his tactics and unwillingness to kill a dangerous villain, the Elite position themselves as the new lords of the planet. Can Superman convince the world that the righteous path is still the right path? Can he defeat the Elite without lowering himself to their level? Or will he snap and lose himself to rage and revenge?

Kelly's Superman eventually embraces his inner-Batman (and then some), but to what twisty, turn-y ends should surprise those unfamiliar with Action Comics #775. DC's Big Boy in Blue has long been an agent of peace and justice (much as punching giant aliens in the face suggests otherwise) and seeing such an unshakable hero reduced to his baser impulses is a bit unsettling, even when animated. Still, Kelly doesn't hinge his script on an explosive third act, taking great care to showcase Clark Kent the Man as well as Superman the Force of Nature. Clark and Lois's marriage, as well as his relationship with his parents, is given just enough screen time to make everything that happens when he dons his tights and cape that much more meaningful. Superman isn't just fighting to save people in the latest DCU animated movie, he's fighting to preserve a way of life; something he knows is all too easy to lose in a century plagued by terrorist attacks, genocide and devastating war. The Atomic Skull is small potatoes compared to two feuding nations, and the arrival of the Elite forces Superman and the world at large to look inward and decide if they're willing to sacrifice freedom, individual rights and principle in the pursuit of safety and security. For those paying attention, it's the same debate that's been turning brother against brother since 9/11 and the same debate that continues to be held nightly between the 24-hour news networks, oblivious as they've become to it.

But for all its thrilling super-powered battles, lofty sermonizing, barbed political satire, and end-of-days dust-ups and beat downs, there are a few too many shortcomings that hold Superman vs. The Elite back from greatness, most of which originate somewhere other than Kelly's script. When it comes to voice casting, DCU animated movies tend to either score big or drop the ball. Newbern sounds almost too wholesome, undermining the raw ferocity of Superman's final showdown with the Elite; Colbert, Kishino and Disney aren't nearly as magnetic or engaging as Downes, making the baddies a one-man show; Perrette's scenes would have benefited from sharing a recording booth with Newbern; and a number of supporting characters are wooden, especially compared to Downes, who seems to swipe every scene. The animation, meanwhile, works when action erupts or Superman takes the fight to the Elite, but doesn't quite impress when Clark goes out for a stroll, the U.N. holds a meeting, Black reveals his tragic back story, the Elite blast a pair of city-trampling bugs, or Lois runs into an unexpected ally from Black's past. The world of Superman vs. The Elite is too small and sparse for the grand ideas being presented, and the inclusion of plot-hole plugs like Superman's fleet of robots, the all-too-brief appearance of the aforementioned ally, and the like is a bit Saturday Morning Cartoon for a Superman movie as (relatively) dark as this one. It doesn't help that pacing, while strong in spots, lags in the middle; which isn't so much Kelly's fault as is the manner in which some of his chattier, more low-key scenes are presented.

I'll be the first to admit my love of Action Comics #775 probably set my expectations too high, leading to the sort of inevitable disappointment that's bound to affect even more comic fans when the first part of Warner Premiere's animated adaptation of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns arrives on Blu-ray later this year. An additional fifteen or twenty minutes would have allowed Kelly to create a grander sandbox for Supes and the Elite to tussle in, sure, but, for once, I don't have much to say about a DCU animated movie's runtime. Seventy-six minutes doesn't seem like much, but Kelly makes the most of every minute, executing nonessential elements with malice, avoiding tangents, and focusing only on that which is crucial to the central debate. No, it's the bright, open world of Superman vs. The Elite that makes it so small. Heavy shadow and endless night goes a long way in an animated Batman movie, saving the animators a lot of work by allowing the imagination to fill out every last corner of Gotham City. Sunny skies and spring-day afternoons, though, reveal how empty and simplistic Superman's animation can be. On the one hand, it's on par with the animation DCU animated movies always deliver. On the other, Kelly's story and set pieces are so cinematic that the traditional DCU animation style is rendered a tad inadequate. Be that as it may, Superman vs. The Elite isn't a failure by any means. You might find yourself shouting its praises when all is said, done and scraped off the Metropolis sidewalk.

SUPERMAN VERSUS THE ELITE DVD  © 2013 Warner Home Video
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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